As Mexico battles drug war, soldiers may face civilian trials for abuse

Mexico's lower house unanimously voted to change a military code that gave the military courts jurisdiction over any crimes committed by on-duty soldiers.

Alan Ortega/Reuters
Water splashes from a drum as a soldier test-fires a gun during a firearm's registration program for civilians and vigilantes in Nueva Italia in Michoacan state, April 29, 2014.

A Mexican congressional decision this week that allows members of its armed forces to be tried in civilian courts for crimes against civilians is a long-awaited win for Mexico’s human rights, advocates say.

Mexico's lower house unanimously voted 428-0 on Wednesday to change provisions in the military code, including a clause that had given the military courts jurisdiction over any crimes committed by on-duty soldiers. The senate passed the changes last week and the bill is now expected to be signed into law by President Enrique Peña Nieto. 

The reform is an important step, because a civilian court, “for all its flaws, is not rigged against" civilians as military courts are, Human Rights Watch senior Americas researcher, Nik Steinberg, told The Associated Press in an email. Mexico's civilian system is far from perfect: More than 96 percent of crimes are never solved or punished. But the military system is considered opaque, with no public access to trial or prosecution information, and is full of incentives for judges to rule in favor of the military, according to a Human Rights Watch report, "Uniform Impunity.”

“Holding soldiers accountable for abuses is one of the most effective ways to help reduce widespread human rights violations by the military,” Mr. Steinberg said. “It will now be up to civilian prosecutors to see to it that the huge backlog of military abuses is vigorously and effectively prosecuted.”

Former President Felipe Calderón put Mexico's military on the front lines of his battle against organized crime and skyrocketing violence, a tactic many human rights defenders argue led to cases of civilian abuse and torture. An estimated 60,000 people died due to drug-related homicides during Mr. Calderon’s six-year term that ended in 2012.

While Mr. Peña Nieto has paid lip service to a more comprehensive approach to fighting crime, including strengthening communities hit hardest by violence, he hasn’t sent soldiers back to the barracks, and charges of abuse at the hand of military personnel continue. More than 20,000 people have gone missing since 2006, “some of whom were last seen in custody of the military,” reports The Los Angeles Times.

"[Soldiers] are trained for confrontation, to defeat an enemy with force,"Alejandro Hope, a top Mexican security analyst, told The Christian Science Monitor earlier this year. Police, on the other hand, are trained to use force as a last resort. The prevalence of soldiers on the streets of Mexico – and across Latin America – can lead to more abuse. Mexico's National Commission of Human Rights registered upwards of 7,350 complaints of military abuses between 2007 and 2012.

But it’s not just Mexico. Numerous nations across the Americas are moving toward militarized and hybrid police models, according to a recent Monitor magazine story:

Latin America is the most insecure region in the world; 1 in every 3 people reported being a victim of a violent crime in 2012, according to a United Nations study. And although it's home to just 8 percent of the world's population, Latin America and the Caribbean account for 31 percent of all homicides worldwide, according to another UN report.

"If you let organized crime reach the point where it threatens the state, you probably do have to take extraordinary measures," including turning to military might, says Adam Isacson, an expert on regional security issues with the Washington Office on Latin America.

To face that threat, Mexico deployed more than 50,000 troops dedicated to counternarcotics operations, Guatemala has repeatedly sent troops to high-crime areas since 2012, and El Salvador assigned the Army to support police in public security matters.

Paraguay passed a so-called militarization law that allows the president to deploy military forces in internal defense operations without enacting a state of emergency, Colombia regularly sends troops to large urban areas beset by crime, and Venezuela assigned an Army general as police chief.

An obvious answer to the threats facing Latin America today is to bolster police forces. But many countries have tried that – and failed. Police reform takes years, and the corruptive influence and firepower of criminal elements are so strong that the military has become a quick-fix answer.

The changes to Mexico’s military code of justice this week follow five rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on cases related to Mexicans suffering abuse by soldiers. The international court ruled the cases should be heard in civilian courts, and in a November 2009 judgment ordered Mexico to modify its military code to bring it in line with international standards.

Though the move is historic, critics say it may not go far enough. They also want Mexico to allow soldiers whose human rights are violated to bring cases to civilian courts. 

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